My husband discovered this wonderful book by Ina Caro, Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train, which I began reading before our trip. Mrs. Caro takes you through French history via train trips from Paris. The first stop is the Basilica de St. Denis — necropolis of the kings of France. John and I went there today and were awed.
St. Denis was the first Gothic cathedral…built on the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery with the tomb of Saint Denis, the first Bishop of Paris. Denis was sent to Paris by the Pope Number II (I ask my Catholic friends to forgive me…I’m not being flippant. I simply don’t recall the name of the pope following Peter the Apostle) to bring Christianity to the Roman city. The Romans were killing Christians at the time and thus Denis and two companions were matryed — beheaded at Montmartre, about six miles away. Legend/history of the Church (pick your point of view) has it that Denis took his decapitated head and walked the six miles to the spot where the Basilica now stands and where he was buried.
In the 12th century, an enterprising abbot, Suger, turned the cathedral into an masterpiece of early Gothic art, using new architectural techniques, including the rose window and flying buttress.
The cathedral didn’t fair well in the ensuring centuries of war and the Revolution didn’t help either! But it was restored in the 19th century and today it’s an amazing depository of funeral art. Pick your monarch — they’re here, even Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette whose ashes were returned around 1830. John and I were particularly struck by the recumbent tomb of Charles Martel, the father of Charlemagne. While his son is better known in history, Charles the Hammer is no slouch. Without him, the French would be speaking Arabic right now instead of la belle langue.
As John and I were sitting on a bench inside the cathedral to take a break and admire the amazing rose window, it occurred to me that we all end up the same. Monarch or peasant — this century or that — it’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust with only our faith distinquishing us. I thought about the people who had been in this magnificent building over the centuries…the royal funerals…the angry mobs during the Revolution…the Nazis in WWII…and on and on to me. Another soul standing in awe of all the marble. And for this soul, the Basilica de St. Denis — unlike Sacre Coeur or Notre Dame — feels more like a museum as opposed to a holy place. It’s a fascinating museum…and Mrs. Caro is right — it’s a great place to start a trip through French history.